Like the majority of public elementary schools in the neighbourhood, Runnymede Junior and Senior is bursting at the seams.
The latest statistics from January of this year shows the JK to Grade 8 school was operating at 120.4 per cent capacity – and that was predating the implementation of full-day kindergarten, pointed out Krista Wylie, a Ward 7 school council representative whose daughter is in Grade 6 and her son in Grade 3 at Runnymede P.S.
Meanwhile, Garden Avenue P.S., a JK to Grade 6 school in Roncesvalles Village, was at 122.2 per cent, nearby Howard Jr. P.S. was at 95.9 per cent (pre-full day kindergarten), Humbercrest P.S., was at 101.6 per cent, and Swansea Junior and Senior P.S. was also at 120.4 per cent capacity. Many of these west-end schools are old – Runnymede P.S. is celebrating its centennial in 2016 – and are in desperate need of repair and maintenance.
“Kids deserve to be in safe, well-maintained buildings,” Wylie told The Villager. “The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is working hard to clean house; to operate as efficiently as possible in the realm of facilities and maintenance.”
Yet, according to Director of Education Donna Quan, the TDSB has a backlog of infrastructure repairs for all its schools at a cost of $3.5 billion. In Ward 7 alone there is more than $76 million worth of repairs and maintenance required, Wylie said. The provincial government, which oversees the TDSB, says the board must sell those schools that are under capacity to fund capital renewal or repairs.
“(However, the TDSB views this stance as short-sighted given the population projections in Toronto that seem to point to an uptick in TDSB students – so they don’t want to sell off schools and then have no space a few years from now,” Wylie said. “There is a disconnect between the province and the TDSB.”
There is an alternative to selling off property as a way of generating the desperately needed funds for repairs and maintenance. It comes in the form of Education Development Charges (EDC) – funds from condominium developers building new residential complexes. But, there’s a catch.
As the regulations are currently written, school boards can only use EDCs for the purchase and upgrade of land. In addition, one of the conditions of EDCs is boards must prove that they are at capacity in the elementary or the high school system – which the TDSB is not. Ward 7 may be mostly over capacity, but there is space across the board.
“It is so unfair we are being penalized for having empty seats in classrooms as far away from where the demand is,” said out-going Ward 7 Trustee Irene Atkinson. “It is ridiculous to bus students from Ward 7 to North York or Scarborough where there is space.”
To add salt to the wound, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is at capacity and is currently collecting $841 per condo unit built in the city. Recently, the city approved 7,000 new condominium units, which will generate as much as $5.9 million in EDCs for the TCDSB.
That’s why the TDSB is calling on the province for permission to collect fees from developers to pay for renovations, maintenance and school construction.
“I believe that space constraints greatly impact decisions and daily routine at a school that is overcapacity,” Wylie said. “The logistics of managing a school where there is no extra space influences every scheduling decision at the school from student entry procedures to lunch and recess schedules to library and phys-ed schedules – space is a challenge and consideration in everything that goes on at a school that is operating beyond its capacity.”
Asked if she thinks the ministry will allow EDCs to be used for renovations, maintenance and repair, Atkinson admitted she wasn’t sure.
“Had the timing of this been prior to the provincial election, I would have felt more positive about it,” she said.
Etobicoke Centre trustee Chris Glover held a press conference during the first week of school alongside Mari Rutka, TDSB board chair and Willowdale trustee, asking the province to change the regulations for EDCs.
“The regulations regarding Education Development Charges made sense for suburban horizontal development,” Glover said. “But now we have vertical development and none of the money from the developers is going to the local public schools to prepare spaces for the kids who will live in the condos.”
A Ministry of Education spokesperson Lauren Ramey says the ministry has indeed received the TDSB’s recommendations on modifying the EDCs.
“We have heard from a number of boards who have asked us to look into their concerns regarding this issue and that is something we are willing to do,” said Ramey in an email to The Villager.
This is not only a Toronto issue, but one that is impacting cities like Ottawa and Hamilton, Glover said. That’s why all the trustees across the province wrote a joint letter to the ministry asking to redraft the EDC guidelines, he said.
Currently, Ramey said, the TDSB has 46,104 surplus spaces in its elementary schools and 30,573 in its secondary schools, which represents approximately 25 per cent of its total spaces. As such, the school board’s enrolment does not exceed its capacity.
Regardless, the provincial guidelines for EDCs are outdated, Wylie said.
“There is potential to change them. No provincial regulation is written in stone. It just requires political will.”
The TDSB educates 12.6 per cent of all the students in Ontario.
“The way the system works is not serving the children,” she said.